Nineteen Sixty-four is a research blog for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University edited by Mark M. Gray. CARA is a non-profit research center that conducts social scientific studies about the Catholic Church. Founded in 1964, CARA has three major dimensions to its mission: to increase the Catholic Church's self understanding; to serve the applied research needs of Church decision-makers; and to advance scholarly research on religion, particularly Catholicism. Follow CARA on Twitter at: caracatholic.


Catholicism at the Poles: Births and Baptisms, North and South

At CARA we sit on a mountain of data about the Catholic Church (…including a new and ever expanding database of international figures). I can always count on one set of numbers to leave me scratching my head—baptismal data (1, 2). In the previous post we examined how birth rates are falling globally. Fewer babies means fewer baptisms right? But there is an odd “swirl” in the numbers the closer one gets to the North Pole. Forget the Francis Effect. Is there a St. Nicholas Effect?

Northern Europe not only leads the continent in baptisms per 1,000 Catholics, it also matches the Catholic crude baptism rates in many high fertility countries in Africa (“crude” rates measure something relative to the size of a population, often “per 1,000”). In 2012, on average, there were 13.9 baptisms per 1,000 Catholics in Northern European countries. Finland, Iceland, and Denmark rank just ahead of Ireland, which is closely followed by Sweden and Great Britain (Vatican statistics combine Ireland and Northern Ireland). Only Norway doesn’t seem to “fit in.”

There are more baptisms per 1,000 Catholics in this region (based on data from the Annuarium Statisticum Ecclesiae), on average, than there are births per 1,000 of the population (based on data from the World Bank). In many areas of the world (including the U.S.), Catholics are no more or less likely to have children than people of other faiths. However, Northern Europe appears to be one place where perhaps Catholic fertility rates, as reflected in the crude baptism rate, are slightly higher than the general population.

It is the case that there are just 11 million Catholics in this area of the world and most reside in Ireland and Great Britain (97 percent). Only about 165,000 Catholics live in Finland, Iceland, Denmark, and Sweden combined. That is about enough to fill the seats in two football stadiums in the United States. There are mega-parishes in the United States with more registered parishioners than the total Catholic population of Finland or Iceland. But these Northern European outliers are real and consistent year after year (i.e., this phenomenon is not limited to the 2012 data). There truly is something different and exceptional about the practice and transmission of the faith in this area of the world.

This region has been a destination for immigrants from other areas of Europe in recent decades. Polish immigration in particular is of interest (1, 2, 3, 4). Is there something different about the fertility and baptism decisions of Catholic parents depending on the social context where they live? Particularly, if you are a Catholic immigrant in a majority Protestant region does it make you even “more Catholic” than you would be in a majority Catholic country or a country with religious pluralism? Does religion become an even more salient aspect of one’s identity and their sense of nostalgia for their place of birth?

Kosovo has crude Catholic baptismal rates similar to Northern Europe and is also a country where the faith is small relative to a large majority (Islam). A few other Eastern European countries have relatively high baptismal rates (10 per 1,000 Catholics or higher) including Slovakia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Poland, and Croatia. In many other Eastern European countries the baptismal rate falls well behind birthrates—meaning that likely some Catholic parents are choosing to delay or not to baptize their children in the faith.

In Western Europe, where Catholicism has been historically strong, the baptismal numbers are perhaps most troubling for the Church. The average crude birth rate in this region is 10 per 1,000 of the population. Yet, the crude baptism rate is only 6 per 1,000 Catholics. Many of these countries have very low fertility rates and rely on immigration to maintain population stability (…some failing to do so). It could be the case that immigrants are driving crude birth rates higher than what these are among Catholics alone in the region. Yet the disparity between birth rates and baptism rates is still significant.

In all of the preceding tables we have shown the ratio of adult baptisms (ages 7 and older) to infant and child baptisms and the numbers of Catholics per parish. In Northern and Western Europe there is only about one adult baptism for every 25 infant or child baptisms and the number of Catholics per parish is typically about 2,500. This means no one is likely standing in line for a baptism and few who baptize children wait until after age six to do so. These indicators look much different in other parts of the world.

The table below shows the infant and child baptism data for African countries with relatively high crude baptism rates. Eight African countries have crude baptism rates higher than Finland. However, note that relative to the crude birth rates in these countries there are likely many Catholic parents with unbaptized children in these countries. In Uganda there are 44 births per 1,000 residents and only 28.5 infant or child baptisms per 1,000 Catholics. It is possible that Catholic fertility rates are lower than others in Uganda but this is unlikely. With 29,798 Catholics per parish in Uganda it could be that some parents are putting off baptism due to limited access to a parish and/or priest. It is the case that there are only four infant or child baptisms for every baptism of someone age 7 or older. So more baptisms are occurring later here than in Europe.

Only on the island of Mauritius does the Catholic crude baptism rate exceed the crude birth rate. In a handful of countries there is near parity between the number of infant and child baptisms and the number of adult baptisms celebrated (e.g., Rwanda, Mozambique, Ghana, Mali, Togo).

There are other African countries in this region where baptism rates look a bit more like Western or Eastern Europe. These are shown below. Notice the massive differences between the crude birth rates and the crude baptism rates. Either Catholics in these countries are disproportionately unlikely to have children or they are delaying or forgoing baptism altogether for their children. There is considerable evidence of delays with the average ratio of adult baptisms to child baptisms for the region reaching 1.9. For every baptism of someone under age 7 there are nearly two baptisms of someone age 7 or older. There are more baptisms of older Catholics than younger in the Central African Republic, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Congo, Sierra Leone, Cote d’Ivorie, Chad, Guinea, and Liberia. Is this a case of waiting lines? Too few priests available? Parishes too far for regular travel? On average, there are 16,426 Catholics per parish in these countries. That means there are more Catholics per parish in these countries, on average, than in all of Finland (…where there are seven Catholic parishes).

The “swirls” in Catholic baptismal rates are not limited to the North Pole. As one moves further south we see again relatively high rates in Oceania. On average, in this region, there are 20 infant or child baptisms per 1,000 Catholics which is consistent with the region’s birth rate of 20.1 babies per 1,000 in the population. There are also relatively few baptisms of older Catholics and low numbers of Catholics per parish. These conditions, similar to Northern Europe, mean that there is unlikely issues of access to a parish or a priest that may delay baptism. In fact, the four countries with the highest crude baptismal rates in the world are in Oceania: Samoa, Tonga, Kiribati, and the Solomon Islands (try that as a trivia question!). Similar to Scandinavia, there is not a large Catholic population here. In these four countries combined the total number of Catholics is just about 218,000.

If Catholics are following the teachings of the Church they should be baptizing their babies within a year of their birth. Unless you are a martyr seeking to be a Christian (and dying because of this before baptism) your salvation, according to the Church, is in question. The Catechism of the Catholic Church cautions, “as regards children who have died without baptism, the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God” (1261).

Throughout history, parents typically had their infants baptized quickly out of a concern that they faced very real risks of death. Between 20% and 30% of infants did not survive historically and in some periods and places this rate reached 50%. Still today, the Church allows a lay person to baptize someone wishing to be Catholic who is facing death or severe illness if no clergy are available. The Catechism states “In case of necessity, anyone, even a non-baptized person, with the required intention, can baptize” (1256).

Around the world today there are about 20 infant deaths per 1,000 live births (2% mortality rate). There is a high of 31 infant deaths per 1,000 in Sub-Saharan Africa compared to 6 infant deaths per 1,000 births in Europe. All things considered, the risk of an infant dying young is considerably lower today than in the past. But it is also the case that these risks are still higher in Sub-Saharan Africa than in Europe. We might expect that Catholics in Africa might be more motivated to baptize their infants than those in Europe. However, we must also consider the relative access to parishes and priests those two populations face. If the Church is to keep up with the population growth in Africa it will likely need to invest in more brick, mortar, and priest collars. In Western Europe it must attempt to reinstall the culture and habits of infant baptism.

Some of the exceptional baptism rate countries highlighted in this post are also relatively small. The table below shows the top ten countries for total infant or child baptisms. These are the countries supplying the world with the most new Catholics each year. In total, these nations accounted for 7.7 million of infant and child baptisms in 2012. This represents a majority of the world’s celebrations that year (56 percent). Notice that even where the numbers of infant/child entries is largest, only in Poland does the crude baptism rate at least match the crude birth rate.

So I will continue to scratch my head... Are Catholic parents in many areas of the world deciding not to baptize their infants? Are they delaying baptism? Letting the child choose their own faith at a later age? So many data points, so many anomalies. At least the latest news from the North Pole is good... Merry Christmas!

Image courtesy of Visit Finland.


Are We Ready for a Future with Fewer Surprises?

With the Synods on the Family occurring this year and next it seems like a good time to look at some “family matters” from the perspective of social science rather than the theology and doctrine being discussed by the Church. In recent weeks, when topics like Ebola or climate change have entered the news and politics, we’ve heard a steady stream of calls for people to “look to science.” That is excellent advice. In that spirit, let me start with a concern. I am really worried about Sen. Elizabeth Warren...

Election 2016 already? Am I suddenly showing some partisan leanings? I’m not even registered to vote! Yet the world needs more people like her. How so? Earlier this year Sen. Warren noted on an appearance on MSNBC’s Morning Joe that her childhood nickname was “The Surprise.” After this admission, co-hosts, former Florida Rep. Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, also noted they were “accidents.”

That was a brave public moment for Sen. Warren. The popular discourse on parenthood in the United States has entered a bizarre stage largely devoid of science (e.g., biology, genetics, demography). Parents, especially those with multiple children, have earned the moniker “breeder” for their overpopulating of the planet; “unintended” pregnancies, like Sen. Warren, are now assumed to be unwanted and something that needs to be discouraged as a public policy; and there is even a growing Childfree Movement.

Some who consciously choose to never have children don’t do this because they dislike kids or think they would be a bad parent. Instead they are deeply concerned about the impact of adding to the global population and the effect that this could have on the environment. Take for example Guardian editor Lisa Hymas:

Population isn't just about counting heads. The impact of humanity on the environment is not determined solely by how many of us are around, but by how much stuff we use and how much room we take up. And as a financially comfortable American, I use a lot of stuff and take up a lot of room. … When someone like me has a child -- watch out, world! Gear, gadgets, gewgaws, bigger house, bigger car, oil from the Mideast, coal from Colombia, coltan from the Congo, rare earths from China, pesticide-laden cotton from Egypt, genetically modified soy from Brazil. And then when that child has children, wash, rinse, and repeat (in hot water, of course). Without even trying, we Americans slurp up resources from every corner of the globe and then spit 99 percent of them back out again as pollution. Conscientious people try to limit that consumption, of course. I'm one of them.”

Hymas focuses here on one set of potential consequences and seems not to understand the internal dynamics of the population growth we are experiencing ( many others). Concerns about overpopulation are very real. We’re likely headed toward more than 10 billion people on the planet by the end of the century and we need to figure out how to produce enough food and energy for them. But babies are no longer the primary concern. You, me, and Lisa Hymas are! Globally, fertility (i.e., average number of births per woman over her lifetime) has been falling for decades (from 4.98 children per woman in 1960 to 2.47 in 2012). The increases leading to the “overpopulation” so many fear in the near future will be driven by those who have already been born living longer than people have in the past. As shown below, the Census Bureau expects the global senior population (ages 65 and older) to increase from about 617,097,000 now to 1,565,844,000 in 2050. That is growth of 154 percent in just 35 years.

The annual number of births worldwide is actually expected to decline during this period by 2 percent numbering just over 130,000,000 each year. In 2000, without notice or ceremony, the world reached an important milestone: “peak childhood.” There were no big news announcements or parades but it happened. From then to now and into the future we can expect there to be about 1.9 billion children (under age 15) around the world at any time. Yet, if the world pushes fertility rates even lower ( play on the graphic below to see how we got here) we will enter a strange period in human history in which we will take steps toward living with an “inverted population pyramid” where there are many seniors and few children. 


In the quest to reduce “overpopulation” many suggest we need to squeeze the bottom of the population pyramid even further without fully realizing the complete consequences of that suggestion.

I certainly don’t think anyone should ever be pressured to have children (e.g., the CeauČ™escu regime in Romania). It is also regrettable when states prevent those who seek to be parents from having the children they want (e.g., the One-child Policy in China). Openness to children is a deeply personal decision with many factors to consider. Some feel they should never be parents for a variety of perfectly valid reasons. Others want desperately to have a child but biologically cannot do so. This post in no way implies that any person or couple “needs” to have kids. However, it does accept the scientific reality that no species can survive without sufficient reproduction collectively. 

Humans have always experienced periodic population declines. But historically these have come as a result of disasters, disease, and sometimes war. These circumstances often kill without or with little discrimination. All sectors of society are reduced in number. What many countries around the world now experience is selective population reduction. The young are disappearing (i.e., never being conceived) as the old grow in number with extended life expectancies.

These circumstances make the economics of the modern state’s social safety net increasingly difficult and perhaps eventually impossible. Most advanced industrial countries rely on state programs to assist their elderly populations with income and health care after retirement. These are paid for by taxing the younger currently employed workers (…your deductions do not go into a “lock box” with your name on it!). If each generation decides to have fewer children than the last, eventually there are too few workers per retiree. The drop in fertility in advanced industrial economies is “the deficit behind the deficit” and if current trends continue this will only grow more problematic.

The country out ahead of any other on this path is Japan. As you can see below in this country’s projected population pyramid for 2050, Japan is coming closest to dealing with the many challenges of an inverted “graying” pyramid.

The effects of fertility decline are not just limited to the state budget and care for seniors. A future of fewer people year-over-year will also be one of perpetual economic stagnation or recession for all. Currently it costs a middle class family $245,340 to raise a single child to the age of 18 in the United States. If a couple has two kids that’s close to half a million dollars they inject into the economy. A skeptic might say they would have just spent that money on something else if they had no children. Perhaps but as most parents know having a child can “encourage” you seek out more income out of necessity (e.g., dads, on average, make more than non-dads and the combined incomes of a mom and dad outpace a couple with no children). As I write Japan is again in a recession. Downturns and anemic growth have become the normal way of life there for decades and will be so for the foreseeable future until they begin to grow demographically again (innovations and exports have been insufficient).

During the Baby Boom of the 1950s and 1960s the United States had one of its highest ratios of non-workers per employed. But a sizable portion of these non-workers were children and parents bore most of the costs of their care and upbringing. The country now faces another growth spurt in dependents in the Senior Boom and their children, too few in number or non-existent, will struggle to pay the bills.

One could argue that those who are going through life today without contributing to the replacement of their generation by either having children or assisting in the care and upbringing of those children (e.g., adopting, personally caring for, educating, or directly financially supporting) are shirking or free riding the system (…the same way many young adults were free riding the health care system before the individual mandate required them to purchase health insurance). Sure the child-free who contribute nothing to the “breeding” process will still get taxes taken out of their checks too as they work but they don’t provide enough, if at all, to producing the next generation who will pay for their Social Security and Medicare.

When countries don’t have a sufficient number of children to replace their elders they often choose to import population (…or turn to robot caregivers and workers? See Japan 1, 2). Without robust immigration in recent decades the United States would be headed down a difficult path similar to Germany or Italy and perhaps eventually to the crippling realities faced by Japan and Russia. The U.S. needs to have immigrants always wanting to come here (a luxury Russia can’t count on). One advantage of this is that individuals coming from developing countries often bring with them higher fertility rates, at least for a generation, that make up for sub-replacement rate fertility among citizens. However, this is an incomplete solution to the complex problems created by low fertility as immigrants most often arrive during their working years. All of the spending on raising them by their parents when they were children (and the associated opportunities to collect tax revenue on this) was done in other countries.

The United States currently benefits from immigration from Latin America and primarily Mexico but this may not always be the case. In The Next 100 Years (2009), futurist George Friedman notes that around mid-century “Mexico will emerge as a mature, balanced economy with a stable population—and will rank among the top six or seven economic powers in the world.” At this time he predicts growing anti-Americanism. “Given U.S. programs designed to entice Mexicans to immigrate to the United States at a time when the Mexican birthrate is falling, the United States will be blamed for pursuing policies designed to harm Mexican economic interests.” Friedman anticipates more broadly that:

The population bust will create a major labor shortage in advanced industrial countries. Today, developed countries see the problem as keeping immigrants out. Later in the first half of the twenty-first century, the problem will be persuading them to come. Countries will go so far as to pay people to move there. This will include the United States, which will be competing for increasingly scarce immigrants and will be doing everything it can to induce Mexicans to come to the United States—an ironic but inevitable shift.”

For the Catholic Church in the United States, immigration has historically meant more Catholics but immigration doesn’t increase population on a global scale. If Catholics move from one country to another there are still the same number of Catholics in the world! However, declining fertility will mean that the Church will have fewer global births and this leads to fewer global baptisms. We can already see this beginning to happen. As shown below, fewer infants and children were baptized in the Church worldwide in 2012 than in 1970.

The Catholic Church gets a lot of criticism for its teachings on married couples being open to the possibility of having children. That may not always be the case in the future (especially for countries unable or unwilling to turn to immigration). Some are already implementing public policies to try to encourage their citizens to have more children.

In Russia they celebrate a national holiday called the “Day of Conception.” Couples who have a baby exactly nine months later win prizes. Russians also can receive payments of thousands of dollars per child throughout the year. In Japan the state is playing matchmaker and spending nearly $33 million hosting parties where young people can meet and begin relationships. In South Korea, “family day” was instituted by the Ministry of Health. They turn their lights off at 7 pm on the third Wednesday of each month so employees can spend more time creating “bigger families.” In Singapore they created an ad campaign that included the following line, “I’m a patriotic husband, you’re my patriotic wife, let’s do our civic duty and manufacture life.” They are limiting the construction of small one bedroom apartments and provide tens of thousands of dollars for each child born in addition to providing tax incentives and parental leave.

Lee Kuan Yew, former Prime Minister of Singapore penned a 2012 piece for Forbes entitled “Warning Bell for Developed Countries” regarding his country’s experience. He cautioned that low fertility in the developed world will lead to a “shrinking workforce and a stagnant economy.” He argues, “To have babies is, of course, a personal decision, but for a nation’s population that decision carries considerable consequences. … Fewer young ­people means fewer new cars, stereos, computers, iPhones, iPads and clothes will be sold.”

As the Catholic Church focuses this year on the family it must grapple with the fact that family is just simply becoming less common all together. Where it does exist, it most often now includes fewer people. As shown below the fertility rate is falling in most countries with the largest Catholic populations (i.e., at least 10 million in 2012). The average fertility rate in these countries was 5.2 in 1960 and is now 2.9. In 43% of these 23 countries the fertility rate is now below replacement level (i.e., 2.1; the rate at which parents replace themselves in the population).

Looking at the right side of the figure above, Germany is experiencing population decline—even with immigration and in Italy, deaths now outnumber births. If current trends continue, things will only get worse for both countries. As shown below, Italy is headed for net natural population losses in the hundreds of thousands in the decades ahead.

The Italian fertility rate is currently only 1.4. In the long-run Italy must raise this rate or face a persistent diminishing population. Take the simplest example of a closed society model (i.e., no immigration) of 100 people of child bearing age (50 male and 50 female) and a fertility rate of 1.0. At most, the next generation might be expected to include 50 individuals. If this generation maintains the 1.0 fertility rate, the next generation would likely include 25 individuals. Assuming this society practices monogamy and continues at the same fertility rate, the next generation could have 12 individuals. The following would have six, then three, then one, and then extinction. From 100 to none in seven generations at a 1.0 rate. In more realistic big population models the math extends on a significantly longer timeline (i.e., 25+ generations) but nonetheless ends in the same dismal place without an increase in fertility at some point.

It is the case that women (and men) in the United States continue to say in surveys that they want to hypothetically have about two kids, on average. But people are waiting longer to marry and longer to have children after marriage. There are relatively inescapable biological realities that do not necessarily conform to changing preferences about when to have a baby in one’s life-cycle. Some will reach the point where it becomes difficult, dangerous, or impossible to have children without ever reaching their goal of having the two kids and there aren’t enough Americans having three, four, five, or more children families to make up for those who do not have any children or have only one.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, more than half of pregnancies in the United States are “unintended.” For many, “unintended” is not an equivalent of “unwanted.” Not every surprise ends in the stereotypes of the parenting debates of the day. However, it is the case that the Department of Health and Human Services has set a policy goal of reducing unintended pregnancies by 10% before 2020. If achieved, this would drive the U.S. fertility rate even lower below the replacement rate (currently 1.87 births per woman). In the macro view, public policies that aim to drive fertility rates well below replacement levels are inherently risky. If successful, these put so many other government programs in danger of becoming unsustainable by constantly downsizing the next generation of workers and taxpayers who will support the ever growing top of the population pyramid.

I also fear the eventual development of a political cleavage at the other end of the population pyramid. What happens when a society can no longer afford to care for its senior population? Perhaps this is the question that the the Millennial Generation will have to face as seniors. It will not help that they are saving virtually nothing for their later years (1, 2). Will society turn on the Millennials in the decades ahead and encourage “compassionate euthanasia” before they face disability or serious medical problems? Will we ration senior medical care even further or increase taxes on medical research and development so fewer new therapies and cures will lead people to live even longer?

The Catholic Church is often portrayed as a backward “stuck in history” institution. Yet, when it comes to fostering a culture of openness to children and asking many important end of life questions it may play an even more important role in the future than we might think now in 2014. I’m not saying that as a Catholic. I note this as a social scientist who looks honestly at the demography and economics of the future and wonders how we will manage what we are creating now.

Again as a social scientist, it is clear that the high fertility rates of the past in an age of significantly lengthened life expectancies would be unsustainable. However, what is not often recognized is that there is also a level of fertility that is unacceptably low for human society. Many countries are already below this “Goldilocks” rate and globally we may fly by this benchmark by the end of the 21st century. As Joseph Chamie, former director of the United Nations Population Division, has warned:

The demographic patterns observed throughout Europe, East Asia and numerous other places during the past half century as well as the continuing decline in birth rates in other nations strongly points to one conclusion: The downward global trend in fertility may likely converge to below-replacement levels during this century. The implications of such a change in the assumptions regarding future fertility, affecting as it will consumption of food and energy, would be far reaching for climate change, biodiversity, the environment, water supplies and international migration. Most notably, the world population could peak sooner and begin declining well below the 10 billion currently projected for the close of the 21st century.”

Depending on where you live you may be able to get a view of the future now. Next time you are at the local grocery store look at the pet products aisle and the baby products aisle. Which is bigger? If it is the pet aisle welcome to the future! You already live there. I certainly have nothing against pets. The generosity and care “pet parents” provide for their companions is commendable. But when you are old your golden retriever won’t inject you with insulin or carry you up the stairs. In fact, your dog will be dead (...after leaving quite a sizable carbon paw print on the environment). Sorry. I didn’t mean for this post to end like Marley & Me.

At the same time if we aren’t open to a few more “surprises” this century we’ll have many sad endings to work our way out of other than the possibility of rising oceans. The future is far more complex than our current political debates. There is more to fear than your thermometer. That is not theology nor doctrine talking. That’s science and another, less well known, inconvenient truth facing us.


Sister Statistics: What Is Happening?

In spring 2014, CARA began analyzing membership data reported by the religious institutes of women in the United States as listed in The Official Catholic Directory (OCD). Forthcoming is a CARA Special Report based on this research entitled, Population Trends among Religious Institutes of Women. This post presents a teaser to this Special Report as well as some re-analysis of a CARA poll regarding vocational interest focusing on young never-married women’s interest in a religious vocation. Two CARA summer interns contributed substantially to these efforts, Erick Berrelleza, S.J., a Jesuit Scholastic at Boston College and James Fangmeyer, Jr., a senior at the University of Pennsylvania. This is all part of a recent flurry of research on religious life by CARA in addition to CARA Senior Research Associate Mary Gautier co-authoring New Generations of Catholic Sisters: The Challenge of Diversity (Oxford University Press, 2014) with Sr. Mary Johnson, N. and Sr. Patricia Wittberg, S.C.

As an applied research center, there are many reasons for CARA to focus on women religious. Perhaps the most pressing is that if current trends continue (…and they may not), there would be fewer than 1,000 religious sisters in the United States in 2043 (…most of this change would occur through aging and mortality with 11% of sisters in the United States currently in their 90s, 26% in their 80s, and 32% in their 70s). This estimated 2043 total would be similar to the number of sisters in the United States in the middle of the 19th century. Currently the total number of sisters in the United States is similar to totals for the first years of the 20th century.

The number of sisters relative to the Catholic population is more precarious in the United States than in Belgium, Canada, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Spain, and Switzerland. The situation in the U.S., is slightly better than in Austria, France, Poland, and Portugal. Leading all other countries, there are more sisters in India than anywhere else (99,330). That equates to about 199 Catholics in India per religious sister.

By comparison there are 1,338 Catholics per religious sister in the United States (and 672 per religious sister in Italy). In addition to India, in several other Asian and African countries, the number of religious sisters is growing year over year (e.g., Nigeria, Tanzania, Rwanda, Vietnam, Indonesia, and South Korea). Yet in many of these countries there are still more Catholics per religious sister than in the United States (e.g. in Nigeria this is 4,783 compared to 1,338 in the United States). No European country is currently experiencing growth in the number of religious sisters. Between 2002 and 2012, Asia and Africa experienced a net increase in sisters of 39,420. By comparison, the Americas, Europe, and Oceania lost a net 119,823 sisters during this same period (…globally the Church experienced a net loss of 80,403 sisters since 2002).

The Special Report will highlight institutes in the United States that are seeing women enter formation and the few that are experiencing this at a rate that allows them to grow. This is easier for smaller, newer orders than it is for the larger, more established orders that are losing many older members who joined communities at membership peaks in the 1960s.

Here in the United States, Gautier and her co-authors note, “Some commentators, for ideological purposes, attempt to create generalized typologies that mask the complexity of the religious reality, arguing that all new entrants go to traditionalist (CMSWR [Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious]) institutes and few or none go to LCWR [Leadership Conference of Women Religious] institutes. … The reality of the situation is that almost an equal percentage of LCWR and CMSWR institutes have no one at all in formation at the present time (32 percent and 27 percent, respectively). One of the most striking findings regarding new entrants is that almost equal numbers of women have been attracted to institutes in both conferences in recent years.” (pg. 20-21).

One of the key differences between those attracted to LCWR institutes is that they are more likely to be over the age of 40, whereas those attracted to CMSWR institutes tend to be younger. As Gautier and her co-authors note, the Millennial religious sisters (b. 1982 or later)—in an institute in either conference—are more likely than those who are older to say the following types of prayer are “very” important to them: daily Eucharist, common meditation, Eucharistic Adoration, and other devotional prayer. Younger sisters are also more likely than older sisters to place more importance on aspects of community: they find living with other members, sharing meals together, and socializing together to be “very” important to them. Finally, the younger sisters are also more likely than older sisters to be attracted to their institute’s fidelity to the Church and its practice regarding a habit.

Gautier and her co-authors caution that “Millennial Catholics, of course, are not the last generation the Church must attract. The Post-Millennial generation is already passing through our high schools. While we do not know what worldview they will develop when they reach young adulthood, we do know that they will not be the same as the Millennials.”

Far too few Millennials and Post-Vatican II Generation (b. 1961-81) Catholic women in the United States have decided to enter religious life to make up for the older generations who have passed away or left. Gautier and her co-authors argue that those currently and recently entering religious life are a rather anomalous few among their peers. To reach more women beyond these few, institutes in the United States would need different approaches to attract Millennial women who are not as currently devoted to their faith. There are no easy answers to just what these approaches may be.

CARA’s Special Report analysis identified only six units of religious institutes with at least 100% growth between 1970 and 2013 (i.e., doubling their membership). Some of these units are often used in anecdotes and news reports about Church trends reversing. However, when one sums the membership of all six “fast” growing units you find that in total they have added only 267 net members since 1970 (i.e., totaling a membership of 229 in 1970 and 496 in 2013). Whatever the units of these institutes have done or are doing will unlikely be the solution to reversing losses in the tens of thousands elsewhere. It’s simply not enough. There are 348 units of religious institutes that have lost 50% or more of their members since 1970 (i.e., net change in total membership). The total net number of sisters lost here from 1970 to 2013 totals nearly 105,000.

Here is a teaser to what the Special Report will reveal about this complex situation (…available soon!):

What gets lost in the discussion of the overall decline of women religious are the stories of institutes that have not followed the decline trend. Religious institutes experiencing growth, for instance, were virtually unaccounted for in past studies. Since any growth in vocations did not surpass the number needed for replacement, many institutes were simply dismissed as having no new members. While in many cases new vocations to religious life are not abundant, it is important to recognize that women continue to be called to this way of life. Although the numbers overall continue to decline, this Special Report presents signs of life that are hidden in those numbers.

It also reveals the diverse ways in which religious institutes have and are responding to declines in membership in the United States. There is no universal approach. However, the choices being made will have significant implications for the future of the Church in the United States.

While the Special Report will focus on women already in religious institutes, other recent CARA research has evaluated who is potentially interested in joining in the future. In a 2012 CARA Catholic Poll (CCP) of never-married Catholics ages 14 and older, respondents provided their attitudes toward religious vocations. A shown below, never-married Catholic females ages 14 to 30 are slightly less likely than those who are older to have considered, and considered “very” seriously, becoming a religious sister. However, these differences are small-especially when one accounts for margin of error.

It is the case that most Catholic women do not consider religious life. But then again, the Catholic population in the United States is and has been so large that even a small fraction considering is equivalent to hundreds of thousands seriously considering this at some point.

Among females ages 30 and younger, a majority of those who have not considered a religious vocation indicate a desire to be a mother (55%) as being “very much” the reason for this lack of consideration (25% say this is the “most important” reason for not considering compared to only 7% of older women). On a related note, many also cite the lifestyle and the work of sisters as reasons for not considering a religious vocation (43%) as well as concerns about celibacy (38%).

Older never-married women are less likely to cite any of these reasons as a factor that “very much” led to their lack of consideration. On the other hand, older female respondents were more likely than younger to cite the stigma of clergy sex abuse to be a reason for not considering religious life. This in part may reflect the passing of time, as respondents in their teens at the time of the survey were small children in 2002 when news of these cases became widespread. Note that in the closed-ended questions this older group cited God not calling them as the “most important” reason for not considering (26%).

What is perhaps also striking about the figures in the table below is the lack of generational differences on many other issues.

Respondents who had never considered a vocation were also given the opportunity to express reasons for this in their own words. Below is a sampling from those ages 30 and younger:
  • Always wanted to get married and have a family.
  • At this point of my life I don’t want to settle down to one thing.
  • Different career aspirations and perhaps motherhood.
  • Felt my calling was outside sisterhood.
  • God had another purpose in life for me.
  • I am in a relationship.
  • I couldn't imagine that type of spiritual life style, I enjoy the company of a man and would like to get married one day.
  • I do not believe I can follow the way of the sisters.
  • I have had a great deal of exposure to sisters and have great respect for them, but I have other plans for my life that include another career path.
  • I have other interests that I want to accomplish.
  • I want the joys of being married with children.
  • I was not interested, it did not fit with my dreams.
  • My boyfriend is against it.
  • That is not a lifestyle I could picture myself living in.

By comparison below are some representative comments from respondents ages 31 and older:
  • Because it’s not my calling.
  • Believed that I would marry and have children.
  • Could not take a vow of poverty.
  • Freedom of movement and speech.
  • I am not holy enough.
  • I could not follow their strict rules.
  • I don't have any interest in it nor do I think I'm the "right" type of person.
  • I don't have the patience or humility required.
  • I don't think I would ever not be interested in men. I also like flirting and dating them. I like guys too much.
  • I enjoy my freedom of choice.
  • I like men and having an intimate relationship. I wanted a family, freedom, a career. I did not want to live with women to serve God. I could serve him as a lay person active in my parish community.
  • I have never felt the "calling."
  • I'm not willing to be totally submissive to the rules and obligations of the order's leader.
  • Not that selfless.
  • This was not my calling in life.
  • When I was young nuns wore habits and I liked clothes.

On that last note, there are mixed opinions among never-married Catholic women regarding sisters wearing habits. Half of the younger respondents say they do “not at all” agree that religious sisters should wear habits compared to 58% of older respondents. At the other end of the spectrum just 5% of the younger respondents and 10% of the older agree “very much” with this practice.

Younger never-married Catholic females also appear to have less awareness than older respondents that there is a diminishing number of religious sisters, as only 14% agree “very much” that the Church has too few sisters compared to 31% of never-married females ages 31 and older. It is also the case that younger respondents are less likely than older respondents to agree “very much” that they understand what religious sisters do (16% compared to 36%).

Regression analyses of the survey responses (available in the full report) indicated that women 1) who attended a Catholic elementary school as a child (...and too few may be enrolled now to support vocations), 2) who remained involved with a Church group while in high school, and 3) who were encouraged by multiple people to explore a religious vocation were most likely to have considered it. Among those who had considered this at least a little seriously, majorities of the younger respondents say they were “very much” interested in an active religious life devoted to ministry and service (52% compared to 42% of older respondents) as well as having a contemplative religious life devoted to prayer and community (50% compared to 30% of older respondents).

Again this post is just meant as a teaser. I can’t give away the bulk of the story (no spoilers) which you’ll find in the upcoming Special Report.  

Update: This report became available on Oct. 13 and is available for download here.


Who Is Getting Paid for Ministry at Your Parish?

In previous posts (1, 2) we described the budget challenges many parishes face—even when they have more than $1 million in revenue. In this post we look at who is earning income (part- or full-time) within parishes for providing ministry. According to CARA’s recent National Survey of Catholic Parishes (NSCP), the average parish in the United States has nearly six paid ministry staff members (mean = 5.8, median = 4; note there are additional paid non-ministry staff such as bookkeepers, receptionists, facilities maintenance, etc.). Six percent of U.S. parishes indicate they have no paid ministry staff (i.e., using volunteers only), 12% have only one paid ministry staff member, and 3% have 20 or more paid ministry staff.

The two most common types of individuals on paid ministry staffs are diocesan priests and lay women. Seventy-nine percent of parishes have a diocesan priest on staff and 71% have at least one lay woman on staff as well. A majority have at least one lay man on staff (51%) and 30% indicate there is a deacon who receives payment for ministry work on staff (...although deacons are volunteers some also serve in other ministry positions within a parish for which they are paid. Considerably more parishes have deacons who are not paid for any ministry). Sixteen percent of parishes have a paid religious priest on staff, 14% have a religious sister, and 1% have a religious brother.

Overall, three in ten paid staff members in U.S. parishes are clergy (priests or deacons), 15% are religious brothers or sisters, and 55% are other lay persons. Half of paid parish ministry staff are male and half are female.

There are more than 17,000 parishes in the United States. At 5.8 paid ministry staff persons per parish that means there are about 101,500 of these individuals (Note that this total includes some double counting of individuals as some clergy and lay people are on paid staffs in more than one parish). Of these, 66,785 are estimated to be lay men and women (i.e., who are not vowed religious. Also note that some are more formally Lay Ecclesial Ministers, however the survey does not include information about education, formation, or manner of appointment so a specific estimate for this population is not possible with the NSCP).

Although there are more than 17,000 deacons in the United States many are either not paid, are not in parish ministry, or they are retired. Approximately 45% of deacons are paid for some sort of parish ministry. The total number of religious brothers and sisters in paid ministry at a parish is now below 4,000 nationally.

On the topic of religious brothers and sisters, CARA will soon release a first of its kind report focusing on a trend analysis of memberships in more than 200 religious institutes of men and more than 500 religious institutes of women in the United States since 1970. We will have a teaser of this analysis in an upcoming blog post here. Also on the blog schedule is a generational analysis of women’s interest in religious life, a comprehensive meta-analysis of estimates of the Catholic affiliation percentage from American pollsters focusing on religion, a look at religion and science in Catholic schools, and one other surprise that doesn’t need any spoilers yet. Stay tuned!..  

About the National Survey of Catholic Parishes (NSCP)
The survey data described above was collected and analyzed through funding provided by SC Ministry Foundation and St. Matthew's Catholic Church in Charlotte, NC. In October 2013, CARA began sending invitations to 6,000 randomly selected parishes (5,000 by email and 1,000 mail) to take part in the National Survey of Catholic Parishes (NSCP). Stratification was used. The total number of parishes randomly selected in each diocese was determined by weighting the diocesan averages of the percentage of the Catholic population and the percentage of Catholic parishes in the United States in each diocese as reported in The Official Catholic Directory (OCD). This stratification ensures that parishes representing the full Catholic population were included rather than a sample more dominated by areas where there are many small parishes with comparatively small Catholic populations. A total of 486 email addresses were not valid and 68 of the mailed invitations were returned as bad addresses or as being closed parishes. Thus, the survey likely reached 5,446 parishes. The survey remained in the field as periodic reminders by email and mail were made until February 2014. Reminders were halted during Advent and the survey closed before Lent in 2014. A total of 539 responses to the survey were returned to CARA for a response rate of 10%. This number of responses results in a margin of sampling error of ±4.2 percentage points at the 95% confidence interval. Respondents include those returning a survey by mail or answering online. The survey consisted of 169 questions and spanned eight printed pages. A slightly smaller national CARA parish survey, including 141 questions from 2010, obtained a 15% response rate. Response rates for CARA parish surveys are correlated with the length of the questionnaire. Responding parishes match closely to the known distribution of parishes by region. Data for sacraments celebrated also match the OCD closely.

Dollar image courtesy of photosteve101.


Rise of the Million Dollar Parish

In our previous post we noted that the Catholic Church in the United States has experienced a net loss of 1,753 parishes since 2000 (-9%). When the Church closes a parish it does not leave the parishioners “homeless.” They become members of a new territorial parish in a consolidation. This is creating a “supersizing” effect that parallels newer and larger parishes being built in the South and West where the Catholic population is growing strongly. With these two trends combined something new has emerged: the million dollar parish.

The knee jerk reaction to the existence of such an institution might be “sell it all and give the proceeds to the poor.” If you haven’t heard someone say this you need to spend more time reading the comments section of any news article referencing the Catholic Church. Of course if the Church did as suggested there would be no permanent presence of a brick and mortar institution in place to help those in need or to serve the Catholic community with Mass, religious education, and sacraments. The reality is that million dollar revenue parishes often now have million dollar expenses (i.e., these aren’t “bling” parishes!).

According to CARA’s recent National Survey of Catholic Parishes (NSCP), 28% of U.S. Catholic parishes now have annual revenue that exceeds $1 million. About one in ten parishes collects more than $1 million a year in offertory collections. Among the larger group of parishes with at least $1 million in annual revenue, the average expenses are more than $1.7 million with revenues, on average, coming in at more than $1.8 million.

As shown in the table below, the million dollar parishes are significantly larger than the average parish. Parishes collecting more than $1 million a year in offertory donations have, on average, nearly 8,300 parishioners and nearly 2,400 of them attend Mass on a typical weekend in October. With an average of 928 seats in their churches they host an average of about 5 Masses per weekend at this time of year to accommodate parishioners (at Christmas and Easter they need to double the number of these Masses).

Those employed by million dollar parishes don’t make much more in wages than those in the typical parish. However, because million dollar parishes tend to be bigger than the average parish they also have more staff members. If you add up the annual estimated wages for the staff members in the chart below they total about $500,000 (and when larger parishes have multiple people in some of these roles obviously the amount needed for total payroll increases even higher. The table also only includes a sampling of positions a parish may need to fill). The typical parish in the United States has expenses of more than $700,000 per year. With a good chunk of these expenses being wages, salaries, and benefits there is not a lot left over for other costs.

Even small parishes in the United States are still large buildings. Think about what you pay for energy, heat, telephones, internet, etc. for your home. Unless you live on a large estate, your pastor likely has to find a way to pay much more than you each month to keep the physical plant operational. Parishes also have rectories and some landscaping that must be maintained (…although pastors have among the lowest wages in the table above, they also receive housing, food, and living allowances that along with income total about $42,000 per year according to NACPA). The parish also provides for many in the community who are having trouble providing for themselves with food pantries, soup kitchens, and other assistance. It is also common for parishes to have a mortgage and/or other debt obligations.

On average, 16% of expenses in a typical parish, excluding wages and benefits for the staff involved, are related to providing religious education, faith formation, and worship ($144,000 per year). This is slightly higher in million dollar parishes (by revenue) at 18% of expenses ($337,200 per year). Most parishes have revenues that just exceed their expenses. About one in four parishes (25%) run deficits and some require diocesan subsidies for operations (8% of all parishes in 2013). 

Beyond offertory collections (and subsidies) parishes raise revenue in a variety of other ways. Twenty-eight percent utilize fundraising meals (e.g., dinners,  a fish fry during Lent), 25% have special collections (e.g., year-end giving requests, capital campaigns), 24% host parish picnics, carnivals, and/or fiestas, 18% use raffles and lotteries, 10% bake and food sales, 9% yard sales, 8% auctions, 5% seasonal events, and 4% use bingo. Other types of revenue can come from rental income, investments, sacramental fees, and votive candles.

There are national discussions concerning just wages and educational debt occurring in the United States. Catholic parishes are at the crossroads of both of these debates. More and more dioceses and parishes are seeking out professional lay ministers who have college degrees (often at the graduate level) and/or certifications from college programs. With college tuition costs rising much faster than incomes many have to finance their education through loans. However, when they are prepared to begin working in a parish they find it difficult to pay their bills (including school loan payments) with their ministry incomes. Many in America who earn graduate degrees in other fields do not go on to earn only $15 per hour. Yet, parishes would struggle to pay much more without a shift in the decisions of parishioners in the pews. The typical Mass attending Catholic household only gives about $10 per week to their parish. There is not much room at that level of giving to push wages higher. On average, 68% of total parish revenue is from parishioner giving at offertory collections.

The Church is grappling with the issue of educational debt on a variety of fronts. It is impeding religious vocations as well as discouraging highly-trained professionals who are struggling to live out their vocation as lay ministers. Unfortunately, the economics of million dollar parishes make it no easier to resolve these challenges.

About the National Survey of Catholic Parishes (NSCP)
The survey data described above was collected and analyzed through funding provided by SC Ministry Foundation and St. Matthew's Catholic Church in Charlotte, NC. In October 2013, CARA began sending invitations to 6,000 randomly selected parishes (5,000 by email and 1,000 mail) to take part in the National Survey of Catholic Parishes (NSCP). Stratification was used. The total number of parishes randomly selected in each diocese was determined by weighting the diocesan averages of the percentage of the Catholic population and the percentage of Catholic parishes in the United States in each diocese as reported in The Official Catholic Directory (OCD). This stratification ensures that parishes representing the full Catholic population were included rather than a sample more dominated by areas where there are many small parishes with comparatively small Catholic populations. A total of 486 email addresses were not valid and 68 of the mailed invitations were returned as bad addresses or as being closed parishes. Thus, the survey likely reached 5,446 parishes. The survey remained in the field as periodic reminders by email and mail were made until February 2014. Reminders were halted during Advent and the survey closed before Lent in 2014. A total of 539 responses to the survey were returned to CARA for a response rate of 10%. This number of responses results in a margin of sampling error of ±4.2 percentage points at the 95% confidence interval. Respondents include those returning a survey by mail or answering online. The survey consisted of 169 questions and spanned eight printed pages. A slightly smaller national CARA parish survey, including 141 questions from 2010, obtained a 15% response rate. Response rates for CARA parish surveys are correlated with the length of the questionnaire. Responding parishes match closely to the known distribution of parishes by region. Data for sacraments celebrated also match the OCD closely.


Checkup Time

It’s time for a checkup. During the spring and summer every year the Vatican release’s the Annuarium Statisticum Ecclesiae (ASE) and in the U.S., The Official Catholic Directory (OCD) is published. With the OCD out this week we’ve updated (and significantly expanded) CARA’s Frequently Requested Church Statistics page. 

This post compares the U.S. data in the 2014 OCD to the numbers released in 2000. There is good news and bad news. My bedside manner compels me to start with the good…

Ordinations to the priesthood and seminarians preparing for this vocation are up. Ordinations have increased by 12% since 2000 and the number of seminarians enrolled has increased by 5%. Yet the strongest growth among the clergy is in the number of permanent deacons who have gone from 12,378 in 2000 to 17,464 in 2013 (+41%). Essentially the Church now has enough deacons to have about one in every parish. The number of lay professional ministers (excluding vowed religious who serve in parish ministry) has also increased from 17,315 to 21,424 (+24%) or to about 1.2 per parish.

The parish-affiliated Catholic population has grown by 11% and the self-identified Catholic population has grown by 7% since 2000. Overall, the self-identified Catholic population has added 5 million. A significant portion of this growth has come from foreign-born Catholic adults which have increased by 4.4 million. CARA’s survey-based estimates of Mass attendance show a slight uptick from 22% attending weekly to 24%. With a growing Catholic population that means nationally the Church has seen the number of Catholics who go to church every week increase by more than 2.6 million since 2000 (+17%).

Now for the bad news—the things the Church needs to work on in the future to ensure its health…

The Catholic Church in the U.S. has experienced a net loss of 1,753 parishes since 2000 (-9%). Most of these losses have occurred in the Northeast and Midwest with too few parishes being opened in the South and West where Catholic population growth is concentrated. Although ordinations are up these remain insufficient to maintain the population of priests due to retirements and deaths. Overall, the number of priests in the U.S. has fallen by 7,424 since 2000 (-16%). The number of parishes without a resident priest pastor has increased by 653 to 3,496 (+23%). The ratio of active diocesan priests to parishes has decreased from 1.2 to a precarious 1.0. Although more parishes are without a resident priest pastor the Church has decreased the number of parishes where pastoral care is entrusted to a deacon or lay person (Canon 517.2) from 447 in 2000 to 388 now (-13%). Essentially, in many dioceses, parishes are being closed rather than having these entrusted to a deacon or lay person.

The number of religious sisters in the U.S. has now fallen below 50,000 after experiencing a 38% decline since 2000 (from 79,814 to 49,883). Religious brothers have experienced a decline of 24% (from 5,662 to 4,318).

Although the number of deacons and professional lay ministers are increasing there may be trouble ahead as there are fewer preparing to add themselves to these ranks. The number of permanent deacon candidates has fallen by 19% and the number of people enrolled in lay ecclesial ministry formation programs has dropped by 27% since 2000.

Catholic schools continue to face challenges with a net loss of 1,496 primary and secondary schools since 2000 (-18%). Enrollments have dropped by 478,938 (-20%). One bright note is in higher education with more than 100,000 students added to Catholic college and university enrollments since 2000 (+15%).

Sacramental practice numbers also show some declining trends. It is important to note that data for the 2014 OCD is collected in 2013 and in that year parishes are reporting the number of sacraments celebrated in the year previous (i.e., 2012). Thus, we still must wait until this time a year to see if any “Francis Effect” is evident in the 2015 OCD (which will include 2013 sacrament totals).

Baptisms of infants and minors have decreased by 22%. However, it is important to note some of this decline is in part related to fewer children being born. For example, there were 4.059 million births in the United States in 2000 and 3.953 million in 2012. In 2000, the fertility rate in the United States was very near the demographic “replacement rate” at 2.06 and is now well below this. U.S. population growth overall, not just among Catholics, is being fueled more and more by immigration.

One effect of falling fertility is you start to see strange stats like the number of first communions exceeding infant and minor baptisms in 2012 (758,034 compared to 713,302). Both first communions and confirmations are also down (-10% and -14%, respectively).

Adult conversions are also in decline with fewer adult baptisms (-51%) and receptions into full communion (-31%). Some of this is related to fewer Catholics marrying. The primary reason most adults convert to Catholicism is because they marry a Catholic. There were 2.3 million marriages in the United States in 2000 compared to 2.1 million in 2011. Not only are Americans less likely to marry now than in 2000, Catholics are less likely to marry in the Catholic Church. The number of marriages in the Church has declined by 41% since 2000 (from 261,626 to 154,450). Even the number of Catholic funerals is down 15% (…should I have noted that in the good news section?).

Since 2000, survey-based estimates of former Catholics—those raised in the faith who no longer self-identify as Catholic—have increased by 14.1 million. This is equivalent to more than 900,000 per year and this would be slightly larger than the number the Church added in baptisms and receptions into full communion in 2012 (817,757). It is still the case that Catholicism retains more of those raised in the faith than most other religions in the United States and every faith has “former members” (...some return as reverts). As the largest single faith in the United States it is also not unusual for the Catholic Church to therefore have the largest number of these former members (Why do they leave? See Pew’s Faith in Flux study). Still, the losses are very significant and there is a lot of work for those interested in New Evangelization to focus on with about 32 million former Catholics now residing in the United States.

Most who leave the faith do so in their teens and 20s. As we noted recently, some of this may be related to fewer young Catholics being enrolled in Catholic schools. It is assumed by many that the Catholics not enrolled in Catholic schools are participating in parish-based religious education. This is not the case as the numbers enrolled here are also down 24%. There are more than a million fewer children and teens in parish religious education classes now than in 2000.

This checkup gives the Church a lot to work on. Perhaps the more important checkup is a year away. With the 2015 OCD we’ll have a clearer idea of the impact of Pope Francis on the U.S. numbers. It is also the case that with unemployment declining and the economy continuing to recover we may expect to see increases in marriages, births, and baptisms. It is also important to note that globally the Church’s charts look very healthy with broad indicators of growth. 

Records image courtesy of Tom Magliery.


Do Catholic Schools Matter?

Do Catholic schools matter? This might be the question I hear more than any other (…and my colleague Mary Gautier has previously provided some answers in NCR using different data sources than what I show below). With the school year at an end here is the most current view…

The economics of schooling in many areas has become very difficult—especially in the Northeast and Midwest where many of the oldest schools are located (often in urban areas where few Catholic families reside today. For more on this: 1, 2). Whenever funding becomes tight people begin to make cost and benefit decisions.

What are the benefits? There is certainly no shortage of research on how these schools perform academically. Results lean heavily toward comparatively positive outcomes but sometimes it is difficult to disentangle these from issues of student self-selection and school admission decisions. Regardless, few question the ability of Catholic schools to educate students academically.

CARA surveys of parents reveal that the top reason parents chose to enroll children in Catholic schools is not for academics but for “quality religious education” followed by a “safe environment” (Primary Trends, Challenges, and Outlook: Catholic Elementary Schools Since 2000). “Quality academic instruction” ranks third for the reasons parents choose Catholic schools (...parents cite “tuition costs” as their biggest problem in enrolling their children followed by “insufficient tuition assistance”). Thus, if one is looking to measure “benefits” perhaps the top concern is in how well Catholic schools provide religious education and the eventual formation of knowledgeable and active Catholic adults.

It would be easy to just compare all Catholics who went to a Catholic school to all those who had not in our national surveys of self-identified Catholics. However, there are significant differences in the proportion of Catholics who attended these schools by generation. Also much has changed on these campuses. For example, schools used to be staffed mostly by religious women and men as well as clergy. Now the vast majority of school staffs are composed of lay women and men.

In CARA’s recent national surveys of the adult Catholic population (CARA Catholic Polls) a majority of those of the Pre-Vatican II Generation (born before 1943) and the Vatican II Generation (born 1943 to 1960) say they attended a Catholic primary school (51%). However, in the generations that followed many fewer report enrollment. Only 37% of Post-Vatican II Generation (born 1961 to 1981) Catholics and 23% of Millennial Generation (born 1982 or later) Catholics have attended a Catholic primary school at some point.

Perhaps the most straightforward test is to examine the effect of Catholic schooling on Mass attendance. The figure below shows Mass attendance by generation and by previous enrollment in a Catholic school as a child (…note the schooling sub-groups are not mutually exclusive. One could have attended both a Catholic primary and secondary school). Generally, those who attended a Catholic school attend Mass more frequently than those who did not attend a Catholic school in each generation. However, differences become more pronounced (and statistically significant) among younger Catholics—those of the Post-Vatican II and Millennial generations. Most Millennials did not attend a Catholic school and few of those in this group attend Mass every week (5%). A third or more of those who did attend Catholic schools are weekly attenders. I’m sure the Church would wish attendance levels were even higher among young Catholic school alumni. At the same time, if Catholic schools disappeared the Church might expect future Mass attendance levels to be well below 10% outside of Christmas, Easter, and Ash Wednesday services.

It is also the case that without schools the Church might also expect to have fewer Catholics in the United States overall. The number of confirmations celebrated in the United States has been in decline since 2009. Part of this decline is likely linked to current changes in Catholic schooling. As shown below, the likelihood that one has been confirmed is correlated with having attended a Catholic school. Among Millennials, only two-thirds of those who never attend a Catholic school are confirmed compared to 82% of those who attend a Catholic primary school and 91% of those who attend a Catholic high school.

Yet this figure likely underestimates the impact of schools on teens and young adults. As Pew found in the 2009 study, Faith in Flux, “Religious change begins early in life. Most of those who decided to leave their childhood faith say they did so before reaching age 24. … Religious commitment as a child and teenager may be related to the propensity to change religion. The survey finds key differences, for example, in the levels of teenage (ages 13-18) religious commitment between former Catholics who have become unaffiliated and those who have kept their childhood faith. Former Catholics who are now unaffiliated are much less likely than lifelong Catholics to have attended Mass regularly or to have had very strong faith as teenagers.”

It is very likely that some Catholics who never attend a Catholic school leave the faith before or shortly after becoming adults. These losses are not captured in the figure above, which only includes those who continue to self-identify as Catholic as adults. A 2003 CARA Catholic Poll estimated that nearly eight in ten Americans raised Catholic who had attend Catholic schools (primary and/or secondary) self-identified as Catholics as an adult. By comparison fewer seven in ten of those raised Catholic who did not attend a Catholic school remained Catholic as adults (CARA has not replicated the sampling and series of questions needed to measure this by Catholic schooling since 2003. However, it is known that retention rates overall have fallen since that time).
Another key area where Catholic schools have a strong impact is on vocations. As shown below, among never-married Millennial Generation male Catholics (ages 14 and older surveyed for CARA’s Consideration of Priesthood and Religious Life Among Never-Married U.S. Catholics) who have attended a Catholic school, more than one in four indicate that they have considered becoming a priest or brother. Only about one in ten of those who did not attend a Catholic educational institution indicate this. Also shown below, among never-married Post-Vatican II and Millennial Generation female Catholics (ages 14 and older) who have attended a Catholic school, 13% or more indicate that they have considered becoming a sister or nun. Only about 6% to 7% of those who did not attend a Catholic educational institution indicate this. 


If fewer and fewer Catholics enroll in Catholic schools in the future either because of changing preferences or a lack of schools it will become ever more challenging for the Catholic Church to foster vocations to the priesthood and religious life. The connection between Catholic schooling and interest in vocations is found to be robust and statistically significant even after controlling for a variety of other factors (e.g., enrollment in parish-based religious education, frequency of Mass attendance, race and ethnicity, income, other youth experiences).

Catholic schools are part of a pipeline that provides a major source of vocations and ministers. As mentioned previously only 37% of Post-Vatican II Generation Catholics and 23% of Millennial Generation Catholics have attended a Catholic primary school at some point. Yet, half or more new priests (50%) and brothers (55%) attended Catholic primary schools as did 41% of new sisters and 45% of younger lay ecclesial ministers.

Without Catholic schools the next generation of Church leaders would be more difficult to recruit and form in the numbers that will be needed for a growing Catholic population (1, 2).

In the broadest view, the long-term benefits of Catholic schools in making Mass attendance more likely and helping ensure young Catholics are confirmed (and remain Catholic as adults), along with the importance these institutions play in fostering Catholic leaders likely outweigh many of the short-term financial difficulties Catholic schools currently face. The Catholic Church would be weakened significantly by continued losses of Catholic schools. At the same time there are many schools that are no longer financially feasible. There are simply too few Catholic families in some areas. These campuses should be closed (...unless they can remain open with non-Catholic students. Schools can educate and evangelize). What is essential is that the Church needs to build many new schools where Catholic families are. Where to start? There are 18 U.S. dioceses where the number of parish-connected Catholics (i.e., registered or attending Mass) per elementary school exceeds 25,000. Most of these are in the South or West.

Using demographic planning (i.e., identifying areas with many Catholic families) the Catholic Church could successfully construct new Catholic schools in many of the dioceses listed above. In a national view, these new campuses would replace closing campuses in areas of the Midwest and Northeast and maintain the Church’s capacity to provide education for the shifting U.S. Catholic population. Some of this is already occurring. Since 2005, the Church has established 347 new schools. Also during this period about three in ten schools nationally have had waiting lists (1,986 schools in 2014). But 347 new campuses are insufficient to rebuild the capacity the Church needs in the South and West (...nationally more than 1,500 campuses have closed in the last decade).

It is also the case that much of the growth in Catholic population in the South and West has been among those who self-identify their ethnicity as Hispanic. Only 14% of students in Catholic schools nationally are Hispanic while 45% of Catholics ages 18 to 29 self-identify as Hispanic. Some have wondered about the feasibility of new schools in the South and West if Hispanic parents do not choose to enroll children in sufficient numbers.

The CARA survey of Catholic parents mentioned above also revealed that once one controls for income (and other factors such as age, frequency of Mass attendance, education, and availability of financial assistance), Hispanic parents are no more or less likely to enroll children in Catholic schools than Catholic parents of some other race and/or ethnicity. Thus, the current lack of enrollments by Hispanic Catholic parents does not appear to be an issue of cultural or school preferences. The shortfall is likely mostly economic with the median household income for Hispanic families in the United States only about 64% of what the average non-Hispanic white family earns annually. In 2013, the median Catholic elementary school tuition was $3,673 per year (after adjusting for inflation this is 37% higher than what it was in 2004). Many may be simply priced out of the possibility of enrollment (...and this in turn may be negatively impacting Hispanic Catholic retention and affiliation). So the challenge is even greater than just creating new schools. The church needs new and more affordable schools.

As incredibly difficult as this may be, failing to rebuild a new model of Catholic schooling where it is needed most would likely result in Catholic retention rates falling to levels of many Protestant denominations (e.g., minorities of those raised Methodist, Episcopalian, or Presbyterian remain affiliated as such as adults). The Church would struggle to develop the next generation of leaders. Then again it would need fewer leaders because Mass attendance rates among a diminished Catholic population would result in fewer demands for sacraments and religious practice. If the Church is looking to get smaller in the future it could easily achieve this by continuing to reduce its capacity to provide school-based religious education.

That was a long way of saying, yes, of course Catholic schools matter.

Classroom image courtesy of Saint Francis Academy. 

Note: CARA Catholic Polls are conducted with GfK Custom Research’s nationally representative panel. A random sample of adult Catholics are surveyed from this panel through their computer or through a television-based interface (for those without computer and/or internet access). This reduces social desirability bias that occurs when surveys are conducted with human interviewers. It is well understood that respondents over-report their church attendance in telephone or face-to-face polling. This problem is minimized using the methods CARA employs in its national surveys.

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